Even Philz Coffee got in the mood. Photo by Courtney Quirin.

When a former shift lead at the Mission location of Philz Coffee, Robert Thumas, saw an image that said “What’s your favorite iced coffee drink, because ours is, ‘Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor,’” he saw no issue with posting it to the store’s Instagram story, which he managed.

He added his own comment: “No more police discounts, please” *barf emoji*, referring to the 20 percent discount Philz Coffee gives law enforcement and other groups. A few weeks after that post, Thumas met with his boss and Human Resources on a Zoom call to discuss the incident. Thumas acknowledged that he stepped over a line and offered to resign from managing the store’s social media account. Nevertheless, he was fired. 

The image that Robert Thumas posted on the Mission Philz store’s Instagram that allegedly led to his termination.

The firing was one of four terminations Mission Local uncovered that transpired over differences with Philz management on the company’s policies toward the police. But even those who remain with the company said there is widespread discontent with how Philz has treated issues around race and law enforcement. 

Indeed, the company acknowledged as much this summer, when it began several companywide forums on race and the police. The conflict between employee and corporate values is one that many companies are struggling with in the post George Floyd era. 

“I was assuming that I was reflecting the beliefs and culture of our store,” Thumas said. “It was a given we were going to support Black Lives Matter and be against police brutality.”

He pointed to examples like a tweet from CEO Jacob Jaber on May 31, “We at @PhilzCoffee stand with those who are speaking out against racism and demanding justice for George Floyd.” 

But while Jaber’s tweet may have aligned with staff like Thumas, it contrasted against a longstanding culture at Philz that has embraced the police.

Like many other coffee shops, Philz hosts “Coffee with a Cop,” events where community members can casually fraternize with police officers in hopes to foster better relationships with them, a practice some police reform advocates approve of.  

But there were other policies that seemed to go beyond encouraging engagement: coffee blends designed with San Francisco’s police and fire departments in mind. Code 33, the blend for police, was discontinued years ago to consolidate the menu, though Greater Alarm remains for SFFD.  

A screenshot of a 2010 post on an old Philz blog explaining the inspiration behind Code 33.

For years, pinning law-enforcement badge patches on store bulletin boards was also common practice, as well as a company-wide 20 percent discount for police officers and firefighters. Unofficially, management later extended the discount to other groups like teachers, EMTs, and Facebook and Palantir employees, depending on the store. 

So when Jaber tweeted out his support for Black Lives Matter, some baristas saw the company’s support as “performative.” 

They argued that the store’s police-inclusive policies directly opposed key values within the Black Lives Matter movement, which champions defunding and decreasing reliance on police departments.

A Philz representative said that as a company centered around “inclusiveness,” they support both the Black community and police officers and discrimination against either group was unacceptable. Yet some employees said that when they actually question current policies that favor police, it has come with consequences.   

Patches

Jaber told employees during a June 23 regional employee forum for Southern California that each store could decide whether to display police patches, but management’s actions went against that, according to employees. 

Lauren Hartz, a former Philz barista in Santa Monica, told Mission Local she had to “pull teeth” to initiate conversations with her boss about removing police patches at her store. 

“By displaying these badges in the store, you’re clearly showing where your allegiance lies,” Hartz said. 

Her boss ultimately removed all the store’s patches touting other cities’ police departments, except for Santa Monica’s. On July 1, though, Hartz said her boss called her into the office and said she had a “negative attitude” after she questioned the patches. Moreover, he said, this was exacerbated by raising questions about the store’s lack of social distancing. He told her to reconsider if she wanted to work at Philz, and she quit that day.  

Three baristas in Costa Mesa also clashed over the patches. The baristas, all women of color, took down police patches pinned to the community board, cut them up, and threw them away the week of June 25. They were fired shortly after for “destruction of store property.”

A Philz representative denied the Costa Mesa incident occurred. Philz said the company would never fire someone who expressed support for movements like Black Lives Matter. 

Later, on July 13, the company sent an email to active employees that noted police officers had been a part of the company’s diverse customer-base and that displaying law enforcement badges has been an enduring store-led decision. The email underscored any store’s right to address the issue of patches. 

“The most important thing is how we treat one another,” the email stated.

Discounts and other incidents 

Along with the patches, the discounts mentioned in Thumas instagram message have also been a problem for employees. 

Maiya McQueen, a former barista at the Philz at Folsom and Beale Streets in San Francisco who was laid off last week, butted heads with Jaber in a series of emails asking him to do away with the police discount, and do more for Black employees like herself. 

“When a Black person tells you that you are being performative or racist, it’s not a moment for you to debate that,” McQueen said. 

Philz told Mission Local it would start the process of eliminating discounts for all non-employees in August. 

Read “Former workers allege Philz Coffee laid off those with COVID-19 fears.

Besides the police, workers alleged other racist encounters at stores.  

McQueen said she was told by a shift lead that her stance was “unapproachable” and she should “not present that way” again. She reported it to her manager, who handled it “beautifully.”

Rowan Allen, another laid-off barista who worked at Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, said Black employees at Philz were confronted with microaggressions in their experience. 

At Allen’s former location on Front Street, the barista recalled that when two Black coworkers approached the store, the shift lead said, “‘Hey, look at those thugs.’” Allen claimed to have reported the incident, but “nothing came of it.”

Several former workers chimed in on social media, attesting to this attitude. 

To better address some of the criticisms, Philz highlighted its launch of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion resource center, an anonymous hotline reporting tool, training, diverse hiring and a donation initiative, in the July 13 email to active employees. 

These changes, however, were too late for Thumas and the other employees who quit or were fired in the last few months.

“I know a lot of people love Philz, and I do, too,” Thumas said. “But I think people should understand what’s going on.”

Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

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31 Comments

    1. It’s a job, not a platform for expressing your political views. Don’t like your employer’s views? Work someplace else. Think that’s unfair? Start your own coffee shop. Such freedom of choice is part of America.

      “When a Black person tells you you’re racist… that’s not a time to debate.” One of the most stupid, most entitled, most intolerant, most quasi-fascist statements I’ve ever heard.

      1. Speak up, Ivanka. Keep telling cash-strapped people in SF how they can “just get another job” and how their complaints of racism are invalid.

        Yeah… calling out white people on their racism is oh-so “quasi-fascist”.

      2. calling out a racist for being a racist or for upholding racist institutions should be the norm.

        1. You typed racist three times in one sentence and nobody in this comment section besides you has a screen name which denotes race or national origin. You’re probably projecting…
          You think like a person in an ANR relationship with Maxine Waters and you’ve yet to discovered your own capacity for stupidity.

  1. The presumption seems to be that, in order to support BLM, you must be anti-police across the board. Life is more complicated than that.

    1. The inception of BLM was police violence against Black people. Being on board with de-funding the police is a requisite.

  2. This article doesn’t mention that any of the police mistreated or was rude to any of this employees while at the store. I’m sure they don’t have a problem accepting the “tips” cops leave for them. I guess you can say this is another form of “racism” because you discriminate based of what a person wears or does for a living instead of ones skin color.

    1. Except the difference is what you do for a living or what you wear is a CHOICE. The color of your skin isn’t.

      1. But who are you gonna call when things go wrong. And if you look at all the people that die at the hands of the police.. one common factor is they are resisting. Imagine if the just turned around and placed their hands behind their back like most people. Guess they made a choice too. Don’t think too many cops like fighting people for no reason. I do believe most cops have evolved since the Jim Crow days

    2. Cop is not a race. I’d think this would be obvious, but in today’s political climate, facts and reality doesn’t seem to get in the way of fantasies and idealogies. Maybe someone should actually study the history of racism sometime, instead of watching fake news from Fox, OAN or Pravda.

      I personally don’t believe in antagonizing people, including the police, until and unless they are themselves acting in a criminal or just plain evil manner.

      I’d say Philz management is acting in an evil manner. Goodbye, Philz coffee. I won’t drink your overrated coffee again. I’m also spreading the word that Philz is run by dickheads, including the hypocritical owner. He didn’t seem to mind the “tips” pro-BLM, anti-racists and just plain decent people have been leaving for Philz, either. I’d like to remind him that there are plenty of great coffee makers and cafes out there. Yours is not that special.

  3. I stopped going to Philz on Castro because I felt staff were unfriendly to me compared with the reception I get at Spike’s. Philz staff seem to prefer certain customers over others, specifically customers who appear conservative. I keep my politics in my head and my money away from Philz.

  4. Seriously though, what is Report for America, who funds it and why do you have a partnership? Does it make me a part of the #heteronormativewhitesupremacistpatriarchy for being curious? Is it a bad thing for your readers to see my comment? Is it because they’d be offended by what might be perceived as a racist micro aggression, or is it because they too might begin to question the motives and alliances held by Report for America and publications such as Mission Local?

  5. Your place of employment is NOT a forum for your personal opinion, no matter how unanimous it may appear, not everyone agrees. Including your employer. See Colin Kaepernick as an example.

  6. There is never anything wrong with protesting or showing support for an issue, the problem is when you go out of your way to attack a group of people, lumping one person or a few into the many.

    1. I’m standing with Philz. I’m proud of them for standing up to this bullying by employees of California who are at-will.

      Any human being who makes the following statement deserves to be unemployed:

      “When a Black person tells you that you are being performative or racist, it’s not a moment for you to debate that”

      If you’re not going to treat all people equally the movement will never gain traction. I don’t support BLM anymore, based on statements like these. Treat everybody equally, it’s hard to believe some people have a problem with that.

      They don’t want to be equal, they want to cause the same oppression that they claim is being inflicted on them. This is the same problem I have with the feminist movement. They don’t want to be equal, they want to turn the tables and oppress the other side.

      A far cry from equality and what is right and just.

      1. I echo your sentiments and reject BLM for its oppressive attitude. Black Families Matter!

  7. “When a Black person tells you that you are being performative or racist, it’s not a moment for you to debate that,” McQueen said.

    This kind of oppressive declaration is a good example of why white people are often scared into silence. BLM can’t succeed without widespread support, but that won’t happen without tolerance and open communication on all sides.

    1. The chorus of whine from the entitled unemployed baristas in this article makes one nauseated. And does McQueen think everyone reports to her now?

  8. When you point at an entire group of people and call them a bunch of racists who love firearms and cocaine, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.

  9. The whining employees are lucky to have their jobs. But they are emboldened by a destructive and hateful movement. Pour coffee, follow company direction, and shut up.

  10. Not sure what happened at Philz in Cupertino (San Jose area), but Philz used to be VERY busy with local police congregating there for morning coffee in addition to a lot of regular customers, typically 4, 5, or 6 marked vehicles and 6-10 uniformed police officers about 7:00 am getting their morning fix of caffeine (like the rest of us), but this weekend, Aug 8-9, not one police officer or vehicle and the store was open but completely empty no customers at all. There was a prominent placard displayed at the ordering station stating “Black Lives Matter”. Seems that at least the morning crowd of customers at Philz in Cupertino embraced the police presence

  11. Wow… the amount of entitlement in these comments is ludicrous. San Francisco loves to boast its image of being “socially progressive”, and yet there are so many people on here who seem to think because they do not directly experience a certain issue, the issue does not exist. Just because you may not understand how you were displaying micro aggressions or plain racism, does not mean you weren’t doing just that. Trying very hard not to reply to some of these comments because it seems these people are very set in their ways. I appreciated this article and will be aware not to bring my business to Philz. Thank you for this Annika!

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